The Emigrants

The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, "The Emigrants," in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

Commentary

The second illustration for the eighteenth monthly number, issued in October 1850, completes the narrative-pictorial sequence that one might be entitled "Micawber's Progress" from indigence in England to affluence abroad. For this second October illustration, Phiz focuses on the figures of Wilkens Micawber, Dan'l Peggotty, and David Copperfield as they shake hands before the departure of the emigrant vessel at Gravesend. Phiz gives the reader a sense of all the other narratives of emigration and opportunity that the working-class men, women, and children "crammed" into the constricted space below decks could tell if they had a David Copperfield to record them. According to J. A. Hammerton (1910), the illustration of final parting of Mr. Micawber and "the companion of youth," David Copperfield, may be associated with the following passage:

Mr. Peggotty was waiting for us on deck. . . . . He then took us down between decks; and there, any lingering fears I had of his having heard any rumours of what had happened, were dispelled by Mr. Micawber's coming out of the gloom, taking his arm with an air of friendship and protection, and telling me that they had scarcely been asunder for a moment, since the night before last. [vol. 2, 453]

In fact, Phiz has utilized Dickens's allusion to the seventeenth-century Dutch genre painter Ostade to give us "the emigrant-berths, and chests, and bundles, and barrels, and heaps of miscellaneous baggage" illuminated by on open port (right), the hatchway (left), and a single lantern (up centre), just above Micawber's head. The former bankrupt's white waistcoat seems a source of light in itself, as if his very presence illuminates the entire room. However, the illustrator's particular interest is the emigrants themselves, whom Dickens describes in a series of present participles to communicate a sense of kinetic energy:

crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking . . . . [vol. 2, 453].

As is consistent with Ostade's genre paintings of Dutch peasant families, Phiz has chosen to depict in specific attitudes and postures the figures of emigrants suggested by Dickens: babies, crooked old men and women, ploughmen, smiths, and other adults of various conditions, classes, and occupations. Kitton noted in Dickens and His Illustrators (1899) that Phiz's original drawing of "The Emigrants," although in other respects consistent with the published version of the illustration, shows Micawber holding a telescope, a detail which Phiz or the novelist, wishing to maintain the seriousness of the scene, must have decided was not appropriate to the scene below decks. To avoid an unnecessary note of levity, the telescope was excised, but Micawber's diminutive sailor's hat and pea jacket remain,

Somewhere in the darkness must be the figures of the novel's two "fallen women," Em'ly and Martha. Thus, although the viewer's eye wanders about the groups of figures and individuals as they respond optimistically (as in the background, right) or pessimistically (for example, foreground, right) to the prospect of the long voyage and utter separation from all that they have known, the reader cannot discover either figure among the twenty-five depicted. Amidst the chaos of scattered bundles and trunks is the central supporting pillar strategically located immediately behind Micawber, as if foreshadowing the central role as magistrate and occasional journalist that Micawber will occupy in the new land "down under." We only glimpse the berths, and find neither stools nor dwarf elbow-chairs. What Phiz gives us in abundance that does not concern Dickens is the other dramas unfolding in the emigrant ship's hold. Momentarily, Martha will come forward — probably from the upper right, where one of the Micawber twins is jumping over a chest — and then the "strangers" (those not incorporated into the party of emigrants) will clear the ship, but in tableau in the midst of the group scene of action and a dramatized range of emotions Phiz focuses on the golden moment of male bonding at the vortex.

References

Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio U. P., 1980.

Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. 2 vols. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.

Hammerton, J. A., ed. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the Dickens Illustrations. London: Educational Book, 1910.

Kitton, Frederic G. Dickens and His Illustrators. 1899. Rpt. Honolulu, Hawaii: U P of the Pacific, 2004.

Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978.


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Last modified 23 February 2010